Archive for August 20th, 2008

College Drinking

Recently the fact that college Presidents from over 100 colleges and universities have called for the lowering of the drinking age to 18 to reduce binge drinking has caused a stir. How, some ask, does making it easier to get alcohol reduce drinking? Why would college Presidents be making this argument?

Before getting into that, let me make my position clear. 18 year olds can be sent to Iraq to kill and die, they can vote on who can be the next President. Yet they can’t order a beer with their meal at Applebee’s? Morally, the 21 year old drinking age makes no sense. Practically, the law itself is not the cause of binge drinking, the cause is the culture that brought forth the law. Therefore, changing the law is just a first step.

My colleague Steve Pane, Professor of Music, tells a little joke to students before our trips to Italy. You go to Italy at noon, and American tourists see Italians drinking wine with their lunch. They shake their head, appalled by this early drinking. Yet at midnight it is these same Italians helping those same Americans, now inebriated, find their hotels. The Italians know balance, the Americans go to extremes. That’s the culture we have, and it’s exacerbated by not only the high drinking age, but the conflicting messages that come from our media, teachers and government: alcohol and drinking are bad and unhealthy vs. alcohol is fun, normal, and really cool.

The problem with the 21 year old drinking age is that colleges are unable to teach and support moderate and responsible use of alcohol. On our travel courses to Italy, where the drinking age is only 16, students at the end of the day can go out, have wine with dinner, and potentially go to night clubs and party.  They could take this to an extreme and go out of control.  They very rarely do. We try to convince them that if they are to drink they should do it like the Italians, in moderation, as part of the culture, not with simply a desire to ‘get drunk.’ Indeed, apart from Americans and soccer fans in Europe, the idea that one drinks to get drunk is a bit strange. One drinks along with social activities or food, as part of the whole experience.

So we tell students that they are in Italy for only a couple weeks, and that they need to make the most of the experience, as rare and expensive as it is. They can go party any time back home, or go on some wild spring break if they wish for that kind of experience. But here it would be a waste of their money and time to ignore and miss the unique aspects of Italy in order to do something they can do at home anyway. It works (that and the fact our schedule requires everyone up and moving by 7:30), and rarely do we have a problem.

In colleges though, it’s either face reprimands and penalties, perhaps being kicked off campus, or avoid alcohol all together. There is no balance. If there were a campus pub, for instance, a lot of people otherwise drawn to heavy and dangerous drinking parties would choose that safer alternative. You’d still have those hard core parties, and there would still be problems like women being harrassed or worse, and people getting alcohol poisoning. But they would be fewer, and staff at a campus pub would be trained to notice dangerous situations. Some worry that this could cause more drinking; people now who are smart enough to avoid dangerous situations might be lured by the ease of the pub to drink and potentially develop problems. I doubt it. The cultural message is strong enough that those who now do not drink probably would not even if the drinking age was lower. Culture trumps laws, especially laws rarely enforced and generally disrespected.

I was talking with the father of one of my son’s friends the other day, and he had been reading an article about managing “millennials, or children now coming of age and into the work force. He said that the article noted that millennials tend to be less self-motivated than baby boomers or gen-Xers, and need more specific guidance and oversight. I’ve noted too how now more than ever students look for a ‘formula’ on how to ‘get the A’ (or for less ambitious, how to at least pass). How many pages? How many sources? What exactly should the paper format be? What precisely is the rubric?

In recent years this pre-occupation with ‘what I need to do to get the grade’ has caused me to rebel a bit, giving less guidance to force them to make these calls on their own (while re-assuring them they can redo it if they fall short). It makes sense, though, when I look at how our society has changed. It’s not just the drinking age, it’s laws on smoking, seatbelts, safety laws, and numerous regulations and laws on the books across the country all designed to create regulations to make sure we do safe things and treat other people with respect. While the motivation for such laws may be good, the impact has a dangerous side effect. When choices are made by authority, and behavior is constrained by a very strict set of rules, people learn to simply look to the rule book rather than learn how to make good choices.

In life, however, there are constant temptations to break the rules. If one does not have the skill to make good choices, then it’s more likely that once freed of the constraints of a clear set of rules, one can go overboard. The mix of freedom and responsibility is better though of as freedom and good decision making, then freedom and respect for authority. College drinking is an example; rather than being able to help students develop good decision making skills, we enforce a rule designed to protect them. In so doing, we may not only fail to protect them from dangerous behaviors, but we might also fail in our responsibility to teach them good decision making skills going forward.